Interview: Ashley Little

by Christa Marie

Ashley Little completed her BFA in Creative Writing and Film Studies at the University of Victoria and her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. She is an award-winning author from Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, having received the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize for The New Normal (Ocra, 2013) and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Anatomy of a Girl Gang (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). Her latest novel, Confessions of a Teenage Leper (Penguin Random House, 2018), focuses on Abby Furlowe, a high school student from Texas attempting to deal with an infectious illness: Hansen’s disease. With her diagnosis and journey to recovery comes several changes – both medically and personally – as she becomes aware of who she really was before.

Confessions of a Teenage Leper is published by Penguin Random House and is available to purchase at major bookstores, Amazon, and Book Depository. You can read an excerpt from the novel here and can find Ashley on her website.

Christa Marie (CM): Thank you for joining us, Ashley. Can you start off by telling us a bit about your novel, Confessions of a Teenage Leper?

Ashley Little (AL): It’s for young adults and is narrated by Abby Furlowe, a seventeen-year-old cheerleader from Texas who contracts leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease) from an armadillo. I like to say that it is Mean Girls meets The Elephant Man.

CM: I love that you’ve taken a story that most readers are probably already familiar with and reimagined it. What exactly inspired you to write a character who develops Hansen’s disease in order to fulfil this storyline?

AL: It’s kind of a long story … While I was doing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, a professor assigned our class a historical fiction piece. We had to find something in British Columbia’s history that interested us and then research it using three different sources (microfiche, interviews, encyclopedias, maps, etc. i.e. not the Internet) and then write a short story about it.

I found out about a place called D’Arcy Island, a colony for those affected with leprosy on a tiny island off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, not far from where I was going to university, in Victoria. The colony ran for over thirty years, from 1891-1924. I did my research and wrote a short story from the perspectives of four men and one woman who had lived there. The idea always stayed with me because it was so haunting, and the people sent there lived in really poor conditions and were basically sent there to die, not get better.

About ten years later, I decided it was time to write a novel about D’Arcy Island. I went to the island and stayed three nights, visiting the orchard they had kept and the foundations of the buildings that had housed them. I did about six months of research towards a historical fiction novel and during my research, I came across a news article that said something along the lines of: Leprosy is alive and well in the United States today in states like Texas, Florida, and Louisiana, because these states have high populations of armadillos, and armadillos can transmit leprosy/Hansen’s disease to humans and vice versa.

And that – just that one line about it still being a disease in these modern times – gave me the idea to write a young adult novel set in the present-day about a character who is very concerned with appearances and ends up contracting Hansen’s disease. The whole novel flew into my mind after reading that short article. And the next day, Abby started talking to me and there was no shutting her up.

This novel turned into something completely different than I had originally planned. But instead of fighting it and trying to force myself back to the D’Arcy Island piece, I listened to Abby and went along with her on her journey, and I’m glad I did.

Working on this book taught me that you can be planning to do something very different than what you end up with – and that’s okay. If you just remain open to the process and follow your intuition along little by little, it turns out fine in the end – you don’t have to fight everything that isn’t ‘in the plan’ and beat down the other voices that are coming up and wanting to say something. Working on this novel taught me to listen, and to trust.

 

This novel turned into something completely different than I had originally planned. But instead of fighting it and trying to force myself back to the D’Arcy Island piece, I listened to Abby and went along with her on her journey, and I’m glad I did.

 

CM: You make a point to address the history and derogation associated with the L-word. Can you tell us a bit more about your choice in using this term, particularly in how it relates to Abby’s understanding of her own illness and her character development throughout the novel?

AL: Ha, good question. My publisher was really reticent to use ‘the L word’ in the title because of what they had learned from my book. That was a proud moment. Their suggestion of Confessions of a Teenage Hansen’s Disease Sufferer didn’t quite have the same ring … The title was something I was not willing to concede, so I had to make a case for it. I guess I won. Ha. I wanted to use the word leper in the title for a few reasons; it’s provocative and makes me want to pick it up off the shelf, but it also implies an ‘otherness.’

The first manuscript I sent out for publication in 2008 was a collection of short stories for young adults entitled, Stories of a Teenage Freak (fortunately/unfortunately it was never published). So I think I’ve been working with this idea of a teenage outcast, freak, leper whatever you want to call it for a long time. Probably based on my own coming of age and being a bit of a self-identified ‘freak.’ I don’t know exactly why that was; probably a desire to be a unique and beautiful snowflake or an artist.

The question of Abby using the term ‘leper’ in the book was a matter of voice – there’s no way a character like her would have used ‘Hansen’s disease sufferer’ at first – that would be a major failure on my part to craft an authentic voice. But as her experience at the clinic in Louisiana (which is a real place) changes her views on the other people she meets at Carville, she switches terms. Once the other patients are ‘humanized’ to her – i.e., she gets to know them – she calls it Hansen’s disease.

And this is what changing the name of this disease is all about: not labelling a person solely based on a condition they have. For example, I get migraines, but you don’t call me a migrainer; I’m not solely defined by the fact that I have this condition, because I’m a multi-faceted human being. I’m more than just my migraines. People who have Hansen’s disease don’t want to be reduced to their disease. I had the counsellor at Carville, Dr. Rodriguez, explain this to Abby in the book. I hope it doesn’t come across as didactic, but I felt like it was important to address the linguistic, cultural, and historical phenomenon of why the two different terms are so very, very different.

 

And this is what changing the name of this disease is all about: not labelling a person solely based on a condition they have.

 

CM: Very well said, and certainly an inspiring element to your novel! Are there any other aspects of your book – perhaps a theme or a character – that you are especially proud of or excited to have included in your work?

AL: I like the dynamic between Abby and her brother Dean. They are so mean to each other, but I think we can tell that they really love one another fiercely. It was fun to write Dean. I tried to make him both funny and a real jerk but also vulnerable all at the same time. I’m happy with how he turned out.

CM: I hear you’re in the process of writing another novel, as well as a few short stories. Is there anything you can share with us regarding these new pieces?

AL: The short stories are a major departure from my previous work. They are magic-realist, bizarre, surreal little stories. There are mermaids. There are re-imagined fables. There are talking penises. I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing with these stories, but I’m having fun writing them. And I think that’s important to me now – the exploration, the delight.

CM: Confessions of a Teenage Leper is your fifth novel. Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with our readers and aspiring authors?

AL: You’re going to get knocked down 1,000 times and you have to get back up 1,001. If you can’t get back up or you don’t want to, then you need to go do something else.

CM: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. We wish you the very best for your new novel and short stories!